American Culture

Making the familiar strange: is this the key to artistic Nirvana…?

The Dark Knight, elves, and the question of plagiarism.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (image courtesy Goodreads)

…when damn near everything presents itself as familiar — it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in re-imagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what’s taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights. – Jonathan Lenthem

Sam Smith and I had this email conversation last week (we have such conversations fairly regularly) about writing. I had just reviewed another highly successful genre novel, Hugh Howey’s Wool, and was mewling and puking as I often do about a primary complaint I have about some of the most popular – and revered – authors of the current boom in genre lit of one form or another: their tendency to spend the endings of their novels setting up the next book in their series. But we also got into talking about pacing and other writerly matters. We were conversing about a friend who’s currently shopping a couple of excellent manuscripts – both compelling storytelling, both genre related (but not genres currently considered “hot” by the publishing industry). In one message Sam had advised our friend to consider writing a work of  fantasy, speculative, or dystopian fiction. I read that advice with a mixture of appreciation and wistful envy and offered my take on my chances of ever writing anything genre based:

I looked at your comments to [friend’s name redacted] about writing sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction and thought, “Yep. He could do that.”  Then I thought “Why can’t I?” But I know the answer. It’s just not stuff I could care enough about to want to write. Wish to hell I could.

But no, I’ll just putz along with my silly lit fic and sell maybe a few hundred copies of something and think I’ve had a great run. Of course I also think, “Should writing simply be about making money?” And Samuel Johnson’s words come up and kick me in the ass: “No man, except a blockhead, ever wrote, except for money.”

Say hello to the king of the blockheads….

Sam, one of the great cheerleaders – and debaters – of all time, tried to counter that Eeyore-ishly gloomy assessment with the following:

I’d actually love to see you bite it off. Forget contemporary genre for a second. Imagine yourself taking a modern-day run at Vonnegut. Or Bradbury, even. Imagine taking that “dirty realism” thing to an alternate present. It’s still what you do now, but you’re freed from the need to reflect the nuance of THIS world – you can imagine angles and contexts that open up doors to examinations of people and societies that are hard to get at right now.

It can be media driven. You can do a story about a rock star in the world that we SHOULD live in, for instance.

As for the demands of hard lit – it has to be all about character and nothing exciting can ever happen – lookahere. Your writing is already at its best when it’s verging on the subject matter of genre. Jay and Teddy in the hotel in NM. Jay on the brink of losing his mind over what? The tragic loss of the only woman he ever loved.

I guess I’m saying that you’re closer to it already than you’re apparently willing to acknowledge. You could do everything you already do, only more.

Just a thought.

It was brave and kind advice, and I deeply appreciate Sam’s – perhaps misguided – enthusiasm for both interesting genre bending lit and for my talents as a writer. For a mad moment I even considered a possibility. I have long harbored a deep admiration/affection for the Dark Knight – that’s right – Batman. Hence this nonsense:

You know who I’d really like to write about if I were going to try that whole genre as lit thing?

Batman – well, a Batman like figure.

Flawed but so wants to do the right things…

hankfully, instead of conveying the laughter that probably had him, in the parlance of the time, “ROTFL,” Sam actually shared an interesting concept of his own:

I have thought from time to time that if I ever bit on writing a fantasy novel I might do one about elves. Right – who hasn’t, you’re thinking? But I know my elves. Read my Tolkien, played a lot of D&D, read people like Pratchett who turn that idealized Faerie thing inside out, etc. Make it different. Set the elves in a gritty, urban noir dystopian environment. Perhaps make the backstory that they used to be here, then left – now they’re back, so it’s an alien story. Some kind of cock-up like that.Then tell a very HUMAN, literary story about family. Father-son tension, which, as it turns out, I know a thing or two about.

That’s sort of where we left things. Although I am herewith challenging Sam to dive in with me during NaNoWriMo to see if we can possibly achieve such, in his case lofty but worthwhile, in my case ludicrous, goals.

But the conversation also raised, for me at least, an interesting question about authors and influences.

The author quoted above, Jonathan Lenthem, has an interesting essay in Harper’s called “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” In this very long but engaging essay (quoted at the start of this piece), Lenthem defends plagiarism charges against figures such as T. S. Eliot and Bob Dylan – charges that I wrote about in an essay of my own recently.

To give Lenthem his due as a more than able defender of the right of artists to, as he calls it, “plunder” the work of artists they admire to create new works  (an important, perhaps the central, point of his essay) would take far too much time and space for this essay – though it’s worth a future attempt. But his observation about the challenge artists face now to try to find a way to express themselves artistically in a world overwhelmed – and jaded – by a profusion of information available with the exertion of, at most, a few keystrokes, deserves quoting in full:

Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a YouTube rebroadcast of the Berlin Wall’s fall — i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar — it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in re-imagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what’s taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights.

A possible plagiarist named Shakespeare (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In one example of how the familiar becomes something else when filtered through another artist’s creative process, he cites a famous story about Muddy Waters who offers no fewer than five explanations of the genesis (and source) of his song, “Country Blues”: he notes that the song’s melody roots are in a song sung in the cotton fields, that he had heard a Robert Johnson recording of a song called “Walkin’ Blues,” and that he learned some version of the song from his mentor, another great bluesman, Son House. Waters also talks about having “made” the song and that “it came to me just like that.”

My knowledge of Batman as a dark, somewhat scary figure comes from reading comic books my uncle brought back from World War II: the re-invention of Batman as “The Dark Knight” in the 1980’s is really simply re-discovery – Batman was only “cleaned up” and made more “All-American” during the 1950’s when Congress was wasting taxpayer money investigating the influence of comics on American youth. The 1960’s  Batman TV show, then, was really a campy, satirical subversion of that “squeaky clean” Batman. So whatever I do with Batman (or a Batman-like character) will certainly be influenced by that childhood reading about a Batman who was a troubled, perhaps unstable, at times morally ambiguous character. Even as a kid in the mid’60s reading those aging, fragile comics books of my uncle’s, I knew that the Batman I was reading about had more power, more truth, and therefore more influence, on my view of the world than the comparatively silly All-American Batman of comics from my own time. And I knew that if I created a comic book hero that he’d be more like the “dark” Batman rather than the “goody goody” one. I already knew at nine/ten years of age that the world was a dangerous place and that sometimes it took more than just punching a bad guy to stop him. After all, if bad people could kill anyone – including the President, it would take more than “Pow! Sock!” to make things right – or at least sort of safe – again.

Likewise Sam’s interpretation of elves in a “gritty urban dystopia” will owe as much to (in my educated guess) his admiration of the works of  William Gibson as to his appreciation of J.R.R. Tolkien. And, as he notes, elves  surely have problems, too. Sam’s just acknowledging the influence of a great author who noted that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The simple truth, of course, is that Sam didn’t invent elves and I didn’t invent Batman. If we use elvish or Batman-like characters in some attempt at our own stories about such creations, are we plagiarists? That seems to be the crux of the argument. Jonathan Lenthem says no. Elsewhere, however, there is some dispute.

As Lenthem notes elsewhere in his essay, we are likely in a period of art that has moved from Modernism’s “anxiety” about the influence of predecessors through Post Modernism’s embrace of influence (if in a sly, ironic way) to somewhere else – a somewhere else that realizes that perhaps literature is, and always has been, analogous (well, metaphorically) to photography in this way: any writer who looks at the “common landscape” that is our literary/artistic heritage and decides to “take his/her own shot” of it is not unlike a photographer who takes a picture of someone or something: a photographer isn’t “plagiarizing” the subject of a photo. Neither is a writer who takes familiar, even famous material and tries to, in Lenthem’s words, “make the familiar strange” plagiarizing. In both cases the artist is merely offering a new, and hopefully, thought provoking approach to the subject.

Or, as John Lennon put it, “…knocking out a bit of work.”

4 replies »

  1. At one level the “plagiarism” issue doesn’t trouble me. I’ve been referencing the work of others for decades, and the goal has never been to rip them off or somehow to steal their ideas. Instead, it’s been about homage, and in some cases about an attempt to strike up a conversation across the generations. IT’s been about claiming my place in a lineage and attempting to do my part to advance those shared principles.

    At another level, I’m trying to imagine what a work of art that doesn’t “plagiarize” might look or sound like. There is nothing new under the sub, it is said, and what story hasn’t been told before? In music, there are only so many ways to arrange a finite chord sequence. As a photographer, I’m keenly aware of the fact that if a thing is worth shooting, at least a few of the zillion photographers who have come before me have shot it. And so on.

    So from my perspective, everything I do, or possibly COULD do, is “plagiarism,” if you will. It’s been done before, probably several times. The best I can do is infuse the ongoing story – my little reboot, if you will – with my perspective. Someone looking at my photograph might have seen the subject before, but maybe they haven’t seen it quite the way I did, and in that moment artist and audience strike up a conversation that benefits them both in some way.

    As for writing that novel, I’d first have to figure out what the story would be. I’m not necessarily good at plot, I fear, so trying to chart a “what happened” that’s interesting is the challenge.

  2. Sam’s comment is more worthy than I think he gives it credit. To me, this is the reason artists continue to create:

    “It’s been done before, probably several times. The best I can do is infuse the ongoing story – my little reboot, if you will – with my perspective.”

    Dropping all theory in this part of the discussion, simply put … I’m not sure I want to read Sam’s retake/interpretation of Hansel & Gretel. However, I’d be the first to sign up for one from Neil Gaiman.

    The author is everything. Yeah, I’m a modernist.

    The author of the work is the work, and cannot be excluded from any discussion of how creative, or original it is. We too often eliminate the author in trying to discover his/her influences. Oh, so you were influenced by da-da, and thump-thump, and wilco and wilco. Ah, now I understand the work.

    No, you don’t. The author of the work is the work. The influences are merely influences. Again, I am a modernist.

    And not to dismiss the larger theoretical arguments about copying, influence, plagiarism, standing on the shoulders of giants influence, and all that, I find those discussions pretty much not helpful (thanks to Dick Cheney for bringing the term to its current use … I hope that is read with all the dripping sarcasm it is intended to be read with).

    It seems to me that no matter how you answer those issues of whether one plagiarizes, who has had influence on the writer/artist, etc., it does not matter. As a writer (and this is the perspective I find this discussion coming from) you do the work, and hope your voice/interpretation of it rings true to the public.

    If your work is obviously plagiarism or too close to another’s, the work probably won’t be taken up by the public.

    The above graf is not written to engage in a discussion of the value of a work of art in terms of sales versus inherent beauty, or whatever. That’s an old discussion I just have no time for anymore, because I’d rather do the writing of something “with my perspective,” as Sam puts it, than spend time worrying about the purpose of a book, or if the idea’s been done before.

    [I can just hear the sounds of the phrase, an unexamined life, coming over the Web at my poor computer. My response … writing is my examination.]

    Again, this is not to discount the discussion. it’s just to say the discussion seems to rarely lead to a new attempt at a novel, a new try at a different Batman, or whatever. In the end, the point, to me, is as Jim notes that John Lennon said (paraphrased, and I hope this was Lennon’s intended meaning) … “to knock out a bit of work.”

    • It was EXACTLY Lennon’s intended meaning, Greg. He was responding to a question by Jann Wenner (back when Wenner was at least trying to be a journalist and not obsessed with his mogulness) about comparisons of Lennon/McCartney to Bach, etc. – usually to diss L&M, of course. John was saying we’re using the medium of OUR time as they used the medium of THEIR time (I’m using that word “medium” loosely and more artistically than it’s usually used, so be aware of that because that’s how Lennon was using it). Whether Beethoven or Mick and Keith, it’s all “knockin’ out a bit o’ work” John claimed – and rightfully so, I think….

  3. Original art does exist – the public just isn’t interested in it.

    Whether it’s music, art, or writing there has been such an homogenization of work in these fields that people have been lulled into thinking that’s all there is. I’ll use music as an example. If all the music has the same back beat and is structured within certain boundaries then it’s easier for the ‘listener’ to tap along to the rhythm. They don’t have to think about the music they’re hearing it can just be a back drop to whatever they are doing.

    As a photographer I understand what Sam means when he says “Someone looking at my photograph might have seen the subject before”. I’ve been doing a series of blog pieces on my discoveries in nature and you can go out on the internet and see the same flowers, butterflies, plants and trees all over the place. But as an artist – meaning oils, acrylics, pastels – I don’t see it that way (no pun intended). But are do they have the same perspective, lighting, etc. Perhaps that’s why digital manipulation has become so popular – trying to stand out from the crowd.

    Yes, when I put together a still life people may have seen the objects before but the arrangement is mine, the style is mine, and – I hope – is unlike any other artist would depict that same scene. I don’t want my work compared to other artists’ work (which is why very little of it sells, I suppose).

    But even more so there is the work that comes solely from the mind of the artist. I have pieces that I have yet to see anything like – they came from my mind, my hand moving in no particular pattern, creating something new and different. Jim often sees ‘similarities’ in my work with other artists but being similar and being the same are very different. (Perhaps there’s a universal wisdom that permeates artistic expression and therefore similarities occur in every age?)

    As for writing, no matter how much a writer may focus on creating a work of ‘pure’ fantasy it will contain threads with which only that writer can weave. I go back to what I was encouraged to do many years ago….write about what you know. Each of us has a unique story – experiences unique to our journey – and no one else can tell those stories or create those same images and rhythms in a poem. But audiences have become trapped in a hamster’s wheel of repetition and familiarity. If a written work has a familiar structure, story arc, or imagery then there’s very little thinking required by the reader – no challenging their perceptions. (And isn’t that convenient in a society controlled by those that increasingly want everything to be homogenous.)

    As artists many of us are working to create uniqueness that touches people in new ways. Unfortunately, my art, Sam’s poetry, Jim’s writing, DOCO’s music may be too original to let us reach that wider audience.

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